"A Gun in Every Gourd"
(An edited version of this essay was featured in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul: Parenthood (2013))
"Cool!" said six-year old Jamie, halting in front of a basket of decorative gourds I had just arranged as part of our Thanksgiving decorations. His two-year old brother Craig ran up behind him and asked that perennial toddler question, "Whatzat?" Jamie grabbed a gourd, with a thin, bent neck and proclaimed, "It's a gun!" This led to my crazed refutation, "That is NOT a gun! It's a gourd!" My boys were delighted in the response they evoked and continued to taunt me on a daily basis by picking up the gourd and pretending to shoot with it, just to hear that now-familiar phrase.
Nobody prepared me for this part of child rearing, or more precisely, son-rearing. I grew up with one sister, a neighborhood full of girls, and a clan of almost all girl cousins. I had almost no experience with little boys, until my first son was born.
I felt a bit overwhelmed and mystified at first. I knew nothing about boys. What do I DO with him? I soon settled into caring for and loving my sweet infant son, and my bewilderment disappeared temporarily.
Before we had children of our own, I had occasionally witnessed "wild boys" and was determined to bring up my own sons differently. I was firmly in the nurture camp of the nature versus nurture debate and believed it was all a matter of raising your child without gender stereotypes. You can stop laughing….I realize now how naïve I was!
We strayed from the typical all-blue wardrobe of baby boys and dressed Jamie in bright primary colors. We provided all kinds of gender neutral, developmentally appropriate toys for him. One of his favorite toys was a play kitchen with plastic dishes. We got him a baby doll one Christmas that he still loves. Our boy wasn't going to become obsessed with cars, sports, or superheroes. No way.
Then Jamie reached toddlerhood and began picking up little cars and making motor sounds with his mouth. He also developed an intense interest in dinosaurs and would growl menacingly when holding a plastic dino in his tiny hands. Where did he learn to make car and dinosaur sounds? He certainly hadn't observed my husband or I doing this. It was as if this innate boyness just emerged from him.
The cars and dinosaurs I could handle, though. My real struggle has been with the unabashed fascination with all manner of weaponry and fighting. Nothing in my girl-centered childhood had prepared me for this.
As a preschooler, Jamie received some superhero action figures as gifts and was hooked. His favorite activity became "playing guys," which involved intricate fighting scenarios between action figures.
This was all foreign to me and left me perplexed. He'd never seen any of the TV shows but was still fascinated by Power Rangers, Batman, and other icons of maleness. His playtime was filled with growls, grunts, and weapon sounds. I stared at my sweet little boy in amazement and wondered where this all came from. He certainly had a vivid imagination, but would he grow up to be a serial killer?
Our younger son spent his infancy listening to his brother's imaginary battles. At three years old now, he's already well-versed in superheroes, action figures, and playing guys. The two boys dress up and act out all sorts of scenes. Five years ago, if someone had told me we'd have plastic swords and rubber daggers in our house, I would have thought them insane.
Early on, I had decided that I didn't want my boys to play with toy guns, but as the boys grew older, I found that it didn’t matter. Give them a bin full of Tinkertoys and they construct a weapon. Go on a hike through the woods and sticks become swords. Even feed them a piece of toast and it’s chewed into a rough gun shape.
We must have two violent, wild boys in our family, right? That's what I would have thought, before I had sons of my own. But our sons are loving, affectionate children with sweet dispositions. They just happen to be boys and thus fascinated by fighting. In fact, they seem to perfectly understand the line between fantasy and real life. Once when my older son was playing guys and wanted me to join in, I said, "Mommy doesn't like fighting." He looked at me and patiently explained, "This isn’t real fighting! In real fighting people get hurt. I'd never do that. This is just pretend."
So, I've learned to love our boys for who they are, and I try not to worry too much. I still encourage them to chase away the bad guys, rather than kill them, and they still humor my poor, limited imagination. We've managed so far to nurture their loving, caring sides while accepting their fascination with combat. Now I need to go rescue my gourd again.
© 2003, Suzan L. Jackson